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Im 33 years old and Ive never eaten meat. My mom decided to be vegetarian in her 20s out of.
Im 33 years old and Ive never eaten meat. My mom decided to be vegetarian in her 20s out of a concern for animal welfare, and she raised us that way too.
Growing up vegetarian, I had curious friends and classmates regularly ask me why. My answer hasnt changed much over the years: I dont need to eat meat, and industrial meat production causes great harm. We should act to treat animals humanely, protect our environment and improve health outcomes.
That same answer ultimately led me to become vegan. Now, my wife is a plant-based chef and nutrition professor and we are raising our 1-year-old son vegan as well.
Its been a significant part of who I am, though Ive never considered myself an animal activist. I havent attended a protest against animal abuse. I dont usually discuss my veganism unless asked, and I try not to make people feel guilty about their own food and clothing choices (except my brother). At best, Ive led by example for those who know me.
But then I introduced Bill C-246, an animal protection bill. Immediately, I was lauded by animal welfare groups and derided as a dangerous vegan activist by meat and hunting associations.
The bill was modest and incremental, with no effect on hunting, fishing or farming practices. The proposed changes included amendments to strengthen the Criminal Codes animal cruelty offenses (originally drafted by the Chretien and Martin governments), a ban on the importation of shark fins removed in a cruel and wasteful method at sea and rules to require that fur products be labelled.
I bent over backwards to offer assurances that the bill was directed at animal abuse, not accepted animal use. I even offered to remove any provision that caused any concern.
None of it mattered. The meat and hunting lobbyists, especially the Chicken Farmers of Canada and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, wanted the bill dead. They spread misinformation about its impact, and they convinced many of my colleagues that rules against killing animals brutally and viciously, or preventing the serious neglect of animals, could jeopardize their industries.
When almost 200 MPs vote against C-246 and only 3 MPs vote against National Seal Products Day, we should be realistic about the current state of animal advocacy, and reflect on how we can improve our efforts going forward.
First, animal advocacy groups must continue to become more professional in their lobbying efforts. Meat and hunting lobbyists are well-funded, well-organized, and roll out the red carpet for MP receptions. Animal advocacy in Ottawa, by comparison, is in its infancy. The playing field needs to be levelled, and donations ultimately matter more than signatures on a petition.
Second, its important to establish friendly relationships with political representatives from all parties. Nobody likes being attacked, on Twitter or in person, and hostile efforts can undermine potential engagement. In contrast, strong personal relationships ensure meaningful dialogue. Working with local riding associations or with candidates during elections are good ways to build up these relationships.
Third, politics is the art of the possible, and we need to recognize that many animal use industries remain accepted in our society and part of our economy. Successful legislative efforts will be modest ones, and should build on the many successes in other jurisdictions. Quebec has recognized the sentience of animals in legislation, dozens of other countries have banned cosmetic testing on animals, the EU and U.S. have more humane animal transport laws and the UK, France and Israel now require video surveillance in slaughterhouses. Our new Liberal Animal Welfare Caucus is well positioned to push for similar changes.
Fourth, single issue campaigns will be derided by some animal rights purists, but they are opportunities to end specific cruel practices and improve the lives of many animals. More importantly, they are also opportunities for a larger conversation about how animals, including farmed animals, have cognitive abilities, emotions and memories. They feel pain and they deserve to be treated humanely.
In the C-246 debate, I shied away from defending my veganism because I didnt want to distract from my specific legislative effort. It was a missed opportunity. We should embrace these larger conversations because they can change minds. And if voters and consumers change their minds, political representatives and companies will too. For any serious legislative change to happen, we first need social change.
That social change starts with every one of us taking a critical look at at our food, clothing and consumption choices, and ensuring our actions are consistent with our beliefs.
Changing long-standing habits can be hard. For my part, it took me a long time to give up cheese and I always had a leather baseball glove. We shouldnt expect perfection, but we can work to be better one step at a time, reducing our economic support for industrial meat, dairy and egg production, and any other industry that causes animals to suffer.
Governments can also help to make it more convenient for us to follow our moral compass. Portugal now requires all public canteens to provide a vegan option, the UK has long required better food labelling for vegetarian and vegan products, and the Dutch government has funded research into lab grown, harm-free meat. Here at home, its promising to see Health Canada update the Canada Food Guide to emphasize the importance of a plant-based diet.
In the end, we cannot expect our political actors to change our laws if we cannot change our own behaviour. While it may not feel like activism, we are the most effective advocates for the humane treatment of animals when our actions align with our beliefs, and when we set an example for those around us.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is the Liberal MP for Beaches-East York. He will be speaking about animal advocacy in politics at the Toronto Veg Fest on September 10.